Author’s note: I live in Italy, which has just been put under “lockdown” for the next three weeks as a result of the coronavirus epidemic. While I’m not under quarantine, circumstances have forced us all to consider that self-quarantine might be in our near future. I’ve thought a lot about how to keep my family of three comfortable and nourished should that occur. I’ve tried to maintain a level head and not panic while still being pragmatic and prepared. Yet every time I go to the grocery store, I shop as though it might be my last food run for two weeks.
A week ago, it might have seemed unthinkable. But if the reality isn’t setting in yet, it should be. As Italy imposes a nationwide lockdown to halt, or at least slow, the spread of novel coronavirus, the truth is that other countries may soon have to follow suit — including parts of the United States.
And as cases spread worldwide and more people are exposed to the virus, more and more individuals and families are going into imposed or voluntary quarantine — whether they test positive for coronavirus or not. This typically entails two weeks that they are supposed to stay indoors (or, at the most, in their own private yard or outdoor space) without contact or exposure to anyone outside their four walls.
So if the order to self-quarantine does darken your door, and assuming you don’t want to order pizza or Thai food for 14 days of breakfast, lunch and dinner, what food do you need to have on-hand for a two week stint at home? (Consider that once you’re aware that you need to self-quarantine, it will already be too late to grocery shop.)
I spoke to Laura Fuentes, founder of MOMables.com, about meal-planning, nutrition and shopping in advance of a possible quarantine. The overarching message is: Plan ahead, but don’t panic.
Take inventory of what you already have on hand.
Before you rush out to Costco and start scooping bulk-wrapped juice boxes into your cart, take a deep breath, and take inventory.
“[Many] households in the U.S. have enough food stashed in their freezers and pantries to get them through a week,” Fuentes said. “Make a plan to eat what you have on hand first. Then head to the store and buy the other staples that will get you through two weeks.”
Rice, pasta, oats, whole grains and canned vegetables are the most practical choices, she said. “Not only do they have a long shelf life, they’re great meal builders for breakfast, pasta night, chilis, soups and stews.”
Plan meals with common ingredients.
Fuentes also advises sitting down for 10 minutes or so and mapping out a 14-day meal plan that favors meals with the same ingredients. So consider meals built around rice, pasta, legumes and other long-shelf-life ingredients, enhanced with protein and vegetables.
“That doesn’t mean rice and beans every day,” she said, “but maybe it means cooking enough rice for three different meals and incorporating it over several days.” So, for example, if you cook a whole chicken and serve it with rice one night, use the carcass to make slow-cooker chicken and rice soup for lunch the next day, or freeze it for a few days later.
You can also easily incorporate dairy products without worrying about spoilage. “With the exception of fresh milk, dairy products like cheese and yogurt should have an expiration date of at least two weeks,” Fuentes said. “You can also freeze milk and consume it within five days after thawing out.”
The freezer is your friend.
The biggest downside of a two-week shopping haul is the limited availability of fresh fruits and vegetables, especially into week two. Apples, oranges and pears will last the longest, as will rather pedestrian vegetables like onions, potatoes, squash and carrots. For everything else, Fuentes said, it’s time to cruise the frozen food aisle.
“Frozen fruit and vegetables are nutritionally on par with fresh,” she said, “and frozen broccoli, spinach and mixed vegetables can be steamed, sautéed or roasted, just as you would with fresh.” For a dose of immune-boosting antioxidants, add frozen berries to smoothies, cereals or desserts. Plan on using your fresh produce within the first five days, then switch to frozen when fresh supplies are exhausted.
Stocking up on frozen food is fine, but what about households, especially in densely populated cities, that don’t have a lot of freezer space? For space-saving and meal-prep shortcuts, Fuentes said to remove meat from its bulky packaging and store meal-sized portions in zipper-lock bags. “That also gives you an opportunity to add sauce or seasoning right there, to save time later.” Be sure to label the bags, so you’re not pulling out a bag of frozen mystery meat and hoping for the best.
Skip the junk food.
Speaking as someone who has already consumed the emergency stash of granola bars and chocolate chip cookies, take it from me: Junk food, like a star-crossed romance, isn’t made to last.
Fuentes recently saw panicked shoppers loading multi-packs of individual snacks into their carts (right next to the month’s supply of toilet paper). “What are they thinking?” she said. “Especially if you’ve got kids in the house, those snacks are going to disappear fast” — not to mention their lack of nutritional value.
Instead, if you want to incorporate some cheats and treats into your 14-day routine, maybe plan on a frozen pizza night or spend a free afternoon making cookies with the kids.
Keep it simple and stress-free.
Self-quarantine is stressful, dudes. And while two weeks stuck in the house might conjure notion of baking fresh bread from scratch and whipping up elaborate soufflés, your patience may wear a lot thinner—a lot sooner—than you expect. If you’re working from home while trying to keep antsy kids occupied, you might not want to do a lot of cooking. “This is not the time to try new recipes,” Fuentes said. “It’s the time for spaghetti and tomato sauce, for quick stir-fries, or for tossing everything into the slow cooker.”
Remember, too, that quarantine is not the zombie apocalypse, and society will not experience a complete and utter breakdown. Electricity, gas and cellphones will still work. You don’t need to hoard food, fuel and ammunition like an End Times prepper. Just keep your wits about you, make a plan and do your sensible grocery shopping. And don’t eat the whole box of granola bars in one sitting.